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Books Chat

Ellen Sue Stern

A chat with the author of 'He just doesn't get it: Simple Solutions to the Most Common Relationship Problems.'

(CNN) -- Ellen Sue Stern's most recent book He Just Doesn't Get it! is a new and unique take on the timeless topic of men and women and the calamities that go hand-in-hand with relationships.

This book goes far beyond man-bashing. Stern asks and provides answers, to questions about the underlying motivations -- the why's -- which compel men to behave the way they do, showing women how to solve problems with less defensiveness and frustration on both sides of the gender equation.

Often humorous in her tone, Stern is never one to tread lightly. She calls it as she sees it, woman to woman. Here is a transcript of a chat with Stern on February 2, 1999.


Question: What is the most common relationship problem?

Ellen Sue Stern: Actually, it's the most important question. What I've found is that perhaps the simplest way to put this is that both men and women feel misunderstood and unappreciated in their relationships.

Question: Can you tell me a little about your educational background?

Ellen Sue Stern: My educational background is in counseling, psychology. I've spent the past 15 years doing relationship seminars...but to be very honest with you, most of my books and my work are based on really looking at the same issues in my own life. I think that's the most compelling way to work-to share the same struggles that others have.

Question: Ms. Stern, what is the most common reason for men to stray from their wives?

Ellen Sue Stern: I think men (and women, too) stray from their relationships because they feel unsatisfied, usually because the magic, especially the emotional/erotic connection has been lost.

Question: Why do women change the rules at least twice a month(even in marriage)? Rules of the household, priorities, how she feels...

Ellen Sue Stern: It sounds as if you're really frustrated and asking the age-old question: What do women really want? One of the big problems I see in relationships is that men feel as if nothing they do is right or enough, and I really believe that men are somewhat bewildered about what women really want.

Question: What a great way to alienate husbands, call the book HE Just Doesn't Get It. Why name it that?

Ellen Sue Stern: Personally, I hate the name of this book. The reason it's called that is that publishers believe that men don't buy books, and therefore we have to cater to women thinking it's all "menís problems." The fact is, men are trying as hard, in their own way, to make relationships work. The other reason I used the phrase is because that's what women really say! What they mean is "He's not doing what I want."

Question: What can one do about a totally great sexual relationship with little else?

Ellen Sue Stern: I actually just had this experience. It seems as if either there's friendship and security and no charge, or lots of chemistry and not enough safety. It's fairly simplified, but you have to decide what's most important to YOU. I believe that if the chemistry is there, most problems can be resolved.

Question: A follow up then. How does counseling restore the connection?

Ellen Sue Stern: I think short-term counseling is a good start.

Question: Being a gay male, can this book be applied to the relationship that I am in? Is there a book that you recommend? I saw you on Oprah, and loved the show.

Ellen Sue Stern: Thanks about the Oprah show. Pretty wild, huh? Actually my ex-husband is gay and some of my insights have come out of struggling with these very same issues in our relationship. Yes, I believe that this book can be applied to gay and lesbian relationships.

Question: Are you related to Howard Stern? He seems to have a good relationship with his spouse.

Ellen Sue Stern: I wish I were related to Howard. I love him.

Question: Don't you think there should be more acceptance instead of trying to change your mate?

Ellen Sue Stern: I'd love to see both women and men be more accepting toward each other. That's really the bottom line. We have to decide if there's something truly important that needs changing, but fundamentally people are who they are. We all want unconditional love and acceptance.

Question: Do you think that a lot of straying comes from financial insecurity?

Ellen Sue Stern: Yes, I believe financial and other stresses play a huge part in romantic and emotional estrangement. Men are women are working so hard that relationships get the leftovers, which is a real shame. We need to work on making the relationship more of a priority.

Question: Why do men feel the need to "withdraw" at times? I catch myself doing that sometimes. I don't know why but men have the reputation for this.

Ellen Sue Stern: When men withdraw it's for lots of different reasons, but most often because they feel pressured. Again, it's that "not good" enough thing...

Question: But women don't seem to withdraw. At least not to the same extent.

Ellen Sue Stern: Women tend to do the opposite. They keep engaging and pushing the issues in their effort to make things change. Sometimes it is best for women to back off a little, get some feedback from friends, and definitely to think about timing and whether they're dumping years of anger or dealing with one "dealable" issue at a time.

Question: Hey, I don't think I'm "completely" hopeless

Ellen Sue Stern: No one's hopeless. Everyone out there is struggling to make relationships work.

Question: After being hurt in marriage, how do you start rebuilding with the one who hurt you?

Ellen Sue Stern: Hurt is one of the biggest issues. Once we're hurt, we naturally back off; especially when trust is betrayed. The way to rebuild trust is to be really honest about the hurt. Ask for what would help to make it better, and then wait and watch to see what changes. Important to take a long view here, if your relationship is of value.

Question: Why does every woman I've ever known say things like "If you don't know what's wrong, I'm not going to tell you." We men simply do not comprehend that logic.

Ellen Sue Stern: That's one of the big things I say to women. Yeah, it would be great if he could read your mind, but it's just not going to happen. We need to be able to ask for what we want. Women feel as if "If I have to ask for it, then it doesn't count." But it does. Women are just generally tired of having to keep explaining and explaining what they want.

Question: But if you ask and he says no you have to accept that?

Ellen Sue Stern: First, you have to ask by being specific about what you want and not throwing the whole kitchen sink at the person. If you ask and ask and ask and he keeps saying I will and then you have to remind him and repeat it, then that's really frustrating. But if you ask and he says he'll try, then itís important to reward effort. The bottom line is you have to decide what you can and can't live with. There's no point in beating your head again.

Question: [The book] goes beyond man bashing. But it starts there, right?

Ellen Sue Stern: This book, despite its name, actually asks women to look at the ways they add to the problems in their relationships. I think male bashing is patronizing and actually a way of women saying they're resigned to the problems in their relationships. We need to go way past that to improve relationships.

Question: The statement that men are not naturally monogamous is untrue. While a lot of comics and talk shows make fun of the fact the men apparently think with their penis, there are a lot of us that will not be lead around by promise or denial of sexual favors, and a good relationship is something to be cherished.

Ellen Sue Stern: I agree that there are many, many men who aren't run by their sexuality and who want deeper connections.

Question: Should a person re-enter a relationship where they have had the other person cheat on them?

Ellen Sue Stern: Here's the deal on re-entering a relationship after a betrayal. It just depends on whether you believe that trust can be rebuilt. And that depends on how willing both partners are to not only forgive, but to create a better relationship. Healing takes time. It doesn't happen overnight.

Question: People are lonely. That is for sure.

Ellen Sue Stern: Yes. People are lonely, and sometimes instead of giving all this behavioral advice, I just want to scream: Just love each other!! Be grateful that this person is in your life!

Question: Are you married?

Ellen Sue Stern: No. I am not presently married.

Question: How old are you?

Ellen Sue Stern: You'll have to look at the book cover and guess.

Question: Do women really like football or are they just trying to "fit in?" Confess.

Ellen Sue Stern: I like football. In fact, I was a Minnesota Vikings' cheerleader and was on the field at the Superbowl in New Orleans. But more to the point, it really doesn't matter if she does or doesn't like football. If she doesn't, you can watch football with your buddies. If she's just watching it for you, that's really ok. One of the biggest lessons is that it's okay to do something for our partner just to form more common ground.

Question: I'm sorry about the Vikings Ellen.

Ellen Sue Stern: Thanks. Yeah. It was such a sad day for us. Just kidding. Football is football. I'm more interested in whether we're all going to learn how to love each other before the world blows up.

Question: Who should read this book, men or women, or both?

Ellen Sue Stern: I promise you that if every man who is having problems in his relationship gave this book to his partner and they read it together, she'd never again accuse him of "not getting it."

Question: Separate bank accounts are good if only the both of you are good with accounting. If one isn't, then the relationship is harmed.

Ellen Sue Stern: I think most of us ideally would like to have a relationship wherein we share everything. It's sort of a mythic ideal. But what works for one couple doesn't necessarily work for another.

Question: Author, there is just one fact of relationships that can't be overcome: sooner or later a couple knows everything about the other. That can make you friends, but it's not good for romance.

Ellen Sue Stern: I agree. I'd like to see a little more mystery in relationships. One thing I ask women to do is to "diversify " their resources. To take space for themselves, to keep some emotions private or talk to friends instead, so that a relationship doesn't get so "comfortable" that it gets stale. There's a real delicate balance between being loving companions and the relationship turning you into business partners or roommates.

Question: I don't think women have changed dramatically in recent years. Go to your local high school and you'll witness the mating game ritual of old.

Ellen Sue Stern: Yes and No. Yes, my teenage daughter is still fairly fixated on having a boyfriend and her relationship is paramount to her. And yet, she is much more assertive than I was at her age, more willing to set ground rules in the relationship and not compromise herself, which is a real plus. On the other hand, my 15-year-old son is quite adept at expressing feelings, more so than most men raised in my generation who have had to learn how.

Question: Author, what advice would you give to the Clintons?

Ellen Sue Stern: My advice to the Clintons would be to do what they're doing: keep their marriage as private as they can under the circumstances (which are pretty bizarre to say the least). My guess is that once Bill's term is over, Hillary will be out of there. But we'll see.

Question: Yes, it takes two, but the basic problem is ironic. For men to tend they must engage in mental gymnastics to even keep up with the connections. Women must accept what he is and make a disconnection, very difficult for women.

Ellen Sue Stern: One thing I tell women is to keep it short. If there's an issue to bring up, say, "I'd like to talk for twenty minutes about _______," and then keep to that. Otherwise men feel totally overwhelmed. And yes, women need to learn a certain amount of emotional detachment in order not to take everything their partner does or says so personally. This is a loaded issue we're on here, because to women what could BE more personal? But there are times to just let go and not try to engage him. It's amazing how much more responsive men are when they don't feel on the spot.

Question: Men can read all the relationship books we want, but until our penises learn to read we're just going to stay stupid. Look at the President.

Ellen Sue Stern: You've got a real point there!!!

Question: I have the impression that the women are interested only in the men who do not respect women and complain *after*. True or false? Why?

Ellen Sue Stern: Lots of women are attracted to "bad boys", if you will. I think as women are getting healthier, if you'll forgive the "new age" language, they/we are learning to create a relationship that has both passion and security. Also, many women are still struggling with their own self-worth, which is sometimes why "nice men" don't win these days, but there's also the challenge of men being both sensitive and strong.

Question: Of course. I wouldn't want to be "needy" but having someone there for you and someone to be there for makes life seem more complete.

Ellen Sue Stern: There's nothing in the end that's sweeter than knowing you are with someone who is there for the long haul, who will watch your back, who you are really growing something with. It's one thing to be "dependent". It's quite another to know you can depend on someone. Think about how different those two sound and feel.

Question: If the opportunity arose and there were absolutely no chance of your spouse finding out, would you sleep with the celebrity who most turns you on?

Ellen Sue Stern: You should rent Dennis Leary's HBO video: No Cure For Cancer. There's a great bit in there about that.

Question: Author, is your book available at Amazon?

Ellen Sue Stern: Yes. The book is available at Amazon and all other bookstores.

Ellen Sue Stern: Thank you all for hanging out with me tonight. You might also pick up "Loving an Imperfect Man: Stop Waiting for Him to Make You Happy and Start Getting What You Want Out of Life."

Ellen Sue Stern: Take care all...

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